When conjuring up images of strong and powerful women warriors, the Viking culture is a common source of thematic elements. The mixture of how Vikings are depicted as both barbaric yet more egalitarian in specific aspects paints a confusing picture of their culture, but how does that compare to the reality of life for women in the Viking Age?
Looking into the treatment of women, both past and present, brings up acts against them that are heinous and potentially upsetting. While included as succinctly as possible for historical accuracy, those who are sensitive to mentions of gendered mistreatment or slavery should take care when reading ahead.
As with any study of the Viking Age, remember that compounding factors reduce the veracity of any claims, meaning you should take both the stories and the archaeological evidence with a grain of salt. The dig sites are thousands of years old, and the Vikings did not keep written records of their own. Foreign sources from the time are our only contemporary records, and the scarce quantity and inserted bias of the authors mars their reliability as primary sources.
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What is a female Viking called?
Those who fought in battle along with the typical male retinue would have been called a skjaldmær, Old Norse for “shield-maiden”. Although shield-maidens have been shown to exist, the average Scandinavian woman would have been considered a true “Viking” only by the spirit of their support.
For the purpose of modern discussion, referring to them as Viking women or female Vikings works as a general term, and shield-maiden works for specific discussions about women who participated in the raids.
What was the daily life of a Viking woman?
The typical woman in Scandinavia throughout the Viking Age would have had very differing experiences depending on her age and social status. Vikings were either: thralls, or slaves; karls, the free commoners; or jarls, the aristocracy. They could, however, shift classes in Viking society.
That is, class position was not static throughout a person’s life, and it was possible to both rise from slavehood to the aristocracy or fall the same distance.
First-hand accounts are also extremely limited, as the Vikings did not keep journals or other written records. Minutiae like the day-to-day tasks of the common folk were less likely to make it into the Viking cultural works than more entertaining stories.
We do know that free Viking women would have been reliant on marriage to a man for significant social mobility by cultural design, even if they had more rights in general than women in other cultures.
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The daily life of a female karl (free commoner)
A normal Viking woman married to a successful karl would have spent her days engaged in tasks around the household. Karls who did own thralls did not tend to own nearly as many as the jarls, so there would still be plenty of work to do in maintaining the land and the family.
She would likely have had near total control over how the household ran, both when her husband was home and when he was voyaging. With journeys lasting months or years, they had the responsibility of maintaining the homestead. The long absence of many men gave free women an opportunity to take over businesses, as well. Others would go on long sailing trips with men to start settlements in far-off lands.
A free Viking woman could join a household and have children with a man who wasn’t her husband. These relationships were equated to concubinage in future laws, but texts from the Viking Age don’t indicate that free concubines were the norm. The lack of a paid bride-price limited their legal rights to the man’s property, but it was a potential path to the same livelihood.
The daily life of a female jarl (aristocrat)
Viking women who were jarls or married to one would have a much easier time in life by comparison. Instead of handling tasks themselves, they were more likely to have servants and thralls to carry out assigned tasks.
She might assist in managing the accumulated wealth of the household, or she might have amassed a wealth of goods and influence of her own.
The daily life of a female thrall (slave)
Slaves did not have a choice in their daily activities, and they were not allowed to own possessions. No matter what gender, slaves would be at the whim of others. Young or old slave women might be put to work on the rougher tasks like cleaning after animals or working in the fields, though they might also help with cooking, cleaning, and other chores.
Adult female slaves might have similar tasks, but they could also find themselves taken as a concubine.
In all cases, the potential for freedom would have given a slave woman an incentive to perform their tasks despite the conditions of their existence. This was no guarantee, and a slave might find themselves in their owner’s grave instead of being freed.
Who is the most famous female Viking?
Within the sagas of the Vikings, there are several women who made their mark in a world that was ruled by strength. While there are many to choose from, one of the most striking and dichotic characters is Freydis Eiriksdottir.
Freydis has a bevy of mentions in the historical sagas, though the exact details of her life vary slightly between the sources. She is the daughter of Erik the Red, though the accounts differ on whether she is the full or half sister of Leif Eriksson. In the Vinland Sagas, she followed his path on a journey to North America. She was joined by a pair of brothers, both groups with their retinues in tow.
Once in Vinland, Freydis maneuvered her way to control of the various structures her brother had built on previous expeditions. After negotiating with the brothers, she convinced her husband that the two had assaulted her. The brothers and their retinue were killed, and Freydis successfully hid the murders for some time.
In the Saga of Erik the Red, Freydis has less of a presence in the story, but she is presented in a more positive light. She still ventures to Vinland, becoming pregnant at some point during the journey. When the band is attacked with ranged weaponry, she takes up a sword while the men hide from the assault. The sight of the woman ferociously baring her pregnant torso drives the attackers away.
The split between the personas in the two stories is a salient metaphor for how Viking culture viewed women overall. They could be fierce warriors and mothers, but they could also be treacherous tricksters who convinced men to undertake foul deeds.
If anything, it’s reassuring to know that on any list of the most famous Vikings in history, there are going to be some women mentioned – which is better than you’ll find in some other historical periods.
Other famous Viking women
Gudrid appears in the Vinland sagas, but she is used as an indication of the shift from the old customs to the new world of Christianity. She married Thorstein, the younger brother of Freydis and Leif.
She was an accomplished explorer, journeying with her father to Greenland and later to Vinland with both Thorstein and her husband after his death, Thorfinn Karlsefni.
Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid, like Freydis, appears in several sagas with differing recollections of her life. Within the Heimskringla, she married Eric the Victorious and gave birth to King Olaf the Swede. This renowned Viking woman would go on to rule as a queen dowager, and was said to be wise to the point of foresight.
When under insistent attempts to earn her hand in marriage from Harald Grenske and King Vissavald from Gardarike, Sigrid grew tired of enduring their forays. After getting their men and retinues intoxicated, she set the house she had lent them on fire and put the sword to any who escaped the blaze.
Unlike Gudrid, Sigrid was dedicated to the old traditions. A suitor, coincidentally also named Olaf, asked her to convert to Christianity in order to marry him. Instead of doing as he wished, he told him to worship as he liked and to let her do the same.
Aud the Deep-Minded (or Unn)
Aud is another well-sourced female figure in Viking Age history. She was married to Olaf the White, a Norwegian Viking and self-proclaimed King of Dublin, and had a son with him named Thorstein the Red.
When Thorstein was later killed, long after he had children of his own, she built a ship and traveled to Iceland. Once there, she took control of much of the land, putting her party amongst the first true settlers of the island.
Olga of Kiev (or Olga of Rus)
The Kievan Rus was a large section of Eastern Europe that was a loose alliance started by the Varangians, Swedish Vikings who traveled the rivers down towards the Byzantine Empire. Rus played a substantial role in the success of the Vikings during the era.
Olga ruled as regent of the Kievan Rus for a short time between the death of her husband, Grand Prince Igor, and the coming of age of their son, Sviatoslav. Her husband was killed by a tribe called the Drevlians in protest against tithes exacted by the Rus, and one of her first acts was to take vengeance on them by killing their nobles and burning down their towns. Her rule was pivotal in the transition from the old ways to a Christian Rus.
The popular series, Vikings, brought much more prominence to the name of Lagertha, but she already had a place in Viking lore as one of the most famous Swedish Vikings. In the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, she was a capable shield-maiden who caught the eye of Ragnar through her deeds in battle.
As Ragnar went to ask Lagertha to marry him, she set a bear and a hound outside her door for protection. Ragnar killed both the animals then took her as a wife. While the timing and situation are slightly different, the story is mirrored in the background of the show’s characters. Beyond that, the show goes far beyond what the sagas say of her.
Was Lagertha a real shield maiden?
It is unclear if Lagata was a real figure or a product of embellished retellings of old stories. The main information on her comes from a historian who lived after the Viking Age. In addition, aside from the details of how she became married to Ragnar Lothbrok, there are no details concerning her life.
Grammaticus did live considerably closer to the time when Lagertha and Ragnar were supposedly fighting their way into the legends, but he still suffered from the same unfortunate lack of historical records. His accounts of history further back into the Viking Age are thus the product of scattered oral histories and other sources warped by time and perception.
Ragnar’s rise and fall took place in the first half of the 9th century, placing it in the early days of the Viking Age. The deeds assigned to him by Grammaticus can be traced to other rules from the time, so Ragnar may actually be a fictional amalgamation of the various actors. With Ragnar’s very existence in doubt, so is Lagertha’s.
What did Viking women wear?
Vikings knew how to weave, spinning together both animal and plant fabrics for linen chemises and woolen overdresses. They also knew how to dye clothing, using both local ingredients and those gained from trading and raiding. A heavy cloak or other overgarment would have been a common addition for enduring the cold weather and frequent snows.
Wealthier Viking women would have more imported clothing, garments made with better craftsmanship, and a broader assortment of jewelry (although probably not earrings given that Viking piercings weren’t a thing). Unique fabrics from France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the Middle East all made their way back to Scandinavia, where those with the most wealth snatched them up.
Shield-maidens would have dressed nearly identical to the men in battle, including the Viking face paint that seems to have been prevalent. Scantily-clad warrior maidens are a product of media fantasy rather than being what Viking women actually wore, as are the horned helmets that were not a common sight in actual Viking regalia. The grave of a Viking warrior, recently discovered to be female, had the same items that would have been present in a similarly successful warrior’s grave.
Most slaves would have the simplest clothing made from lower quality materials or passed down from free women. Concubines would have potentially received more preferential treatment for finer clothing and jewelry that didn’t go to the wife, especially as more prominent jarls or kings would be most likely to own them. Still, they did not own the items.
How did Viking women do their hair?
Viking women tended to keep their hair long, as did men. Although braids are commonly seen in modern depictions of Viking females, most evidence points towards ponytails that occasionally sported a small knot at the base.
A statue of a Valkyrie, dated to the beginning of the Viking Age, shows what appears to be a warrior woman with hair laid out in very neat and orderly rows. The common knot can be seen at the base of her ponytail, but it is difficult to tell whether the rows of hair are a stylistic consequence seen through a modern lens or a true depiction of a Viking woman with braided hair.
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How did Vikings treat their wives?
How Vikings treated their wives depended on the social status and personal temperaments of both the husband and the wife. The evidence points to women in the upper and middle (karl and jarl) social classes receiving better treatment than their contemporaries in other cultures. Women were also allowed to seek divorce in certain situations.
These cases included habitual physical abuse or a sudden loss of wealth, and the man had to return the dowry if so.
With the stratification of classes in Viking culture, Viking women who counted among the jarls would have had the most independence and wealth. When al-Ghazal took visits with the queen of a Viking territory while visiting around 845 CE, his advisors told him to space out his meetings to avoid any appearance of impropriety. He told the queen his concern, but she laughed at his worries and told him that women were free to seek lovers or divorce their husbands if they felt like it.
For women of high status and personal wealth, leaving a husband who displeased them was a feasible option. Similarly, women in the karl class would have had the same rights, but the actuality of them leaving their husbands might not have been as easy. The return of the dowry and loose legal protection helped, but whether that played out as expected in the lives of lesser-known women is likely lost to time.
Males with a high social status had the opportunity to take a wife, lovers, and concubines. The wife would still likely receive the best treatment. A free lover might be treated as a member of the household, a close friend, or a casual fling. A man could freely go out and find these lovers, but the wife had the say of who was allowed in the household.
Ibn Fadlan wrote that each of the men would buy necklaces for their wives as a way to signify their own wealth. While this doesn’t tell us how they treated them and does not necessarily mean the author understood the nature of the relationships, it does show the typical behavior of giving gifts to a loved one.
How did Vikings treat their concubines?
Both free and thrall concubines had less power over the man, giving him greater control over how he treated them. Not every Viking owned concubines, though. They were considered a valuable trade commodity at the time, and rough estimates put the number of slaves in Viking Scandinavia at about 10%.
Those that did own concubines likely treated them slightly better than other thralls, but they unmistakably did not have the rights to freedom or property.
Viking relationships were not entirely aligned with the rules set forth by Christian Europe. Where children born out of wedlock were frequently seen as below those born in a marriage, Viking men could freely claim children from extramarital relationships, both with free women and thralls, as legitimate heirs.
Codification of these laws occurred after the Viking Age and the onset of Christianity, with most regions addressing the matter of legitimacy rather than how concubines were to be treated.
While the extent of sacrifice in Viking rituals is not clear, the account of ibn Fadlan goes into great detail about the sacrifice of a slave as part of a prestigious Viking funeral. He notes that, while any slave was a viable sacrifice, the role was expected to be taken by a woman. The life of a slave was less valuable than anyone else’s and frequently expendable despite their trade value.
Did female Vikings go to Valhalla?
Female Vikings could go to Valhalla. Viking culture and mythos were not free of bias against women, but the gods cared about the method of their dying, not the details of their life. According to the Poetic Edda, Valhalla was reserved only for those who demonstrated their eternal valor by dying in battle.
And of those who demonstrated this, half of that group was taken “till Valhalla” by Freya, while the other half went with Odin.
As a religious analog to Viking cultural views, it shows how they were more concerned about what people did than who they were. Unfortunately, it also shows how they saw violence and strength as the solution to all problems, even metaphysical ones.
How common were female Viking warriors?
We do not know exactly how common it was for women to regularly participate as warriors. The archaeological evidence for shield-maidens is limited, although there are a number of confirmed or likely shield-maidens. This leaves us largely with stories that are as much an ancient form of superhero stories as they are a historical record.
Part of the evidence of the existence of at least some shield maidens as female Viking warriors is from the fact that females were common in Viking settlement parties.
From what we know of their culture, a Viking would not find it odd to meet a woman who knew how to fight and was willing to do so. Other cultures may not have been exposed to this aspect and assumed the women in the party were not there as warriors. We may never know the extent of their participation without a significant finding on the same level as the Islamic accounts.
At what age did Vikings get married?
As with most cultures before modern times, Vikings would wed much earlier than is typical for current times. Girls would be considered adults around age 12, and boys would mature a little slower at around 14. It was uncommon for Vikings to be unwed by the age of 20, though exceptions would exist for those who couldn’t find partners.
Shorter lifespans, harder lives, and less knowledge would have combined to let the natural signs govern the age of marriage in most developing cultures. Puberty would have marked a person for marriage more than the number of seasons they had seen.
Modernization and urbanization had a significant impact on the marriage age, though it didn’t always outweigh the cultural norms. For example, scholars estimated the age of marriage in Italy during the peak of the Roman empire was further into the 20s, and the youngest were closer to 17. The laws allowed for marriage at the same age as the Vikings, but the shifting environment provided more options in life.
Did Vikings share their wives?
The actual rate of extramarital relationships by a married woman is uncertain, but concubines were freely shared according to Ibn Fadlan’s account. What’s known is that Vikings had a more open view of sexuality during the bulk of the Viking Age.
The core family structure followed the typical husband and wife arrangement, but how they behaved beyond that would depend on whether or not they had the motive and opportunity to engage in further relationships.
As Catholicism began to overtake the Scandinavian peninsula, it also supplanted some of the old cultural norms of the region. Like the laws concerning inheritance for slaves and concubines, it’s difficult to say which portions are codification of Viking laws and which are attempts to remove those elements.